Commentary

Boxing, MMA make strained bedfellows

Oscar De La Hoya sees a future in which boxing and mixed martial arts can coexist, even walk arm in arm. But will MMA fans accept outside influences, and would the union be a killer crossover for boxing?

Updated: January 27, 2009, 10:14 PM ET
By Tim Smith | Special to ESPN.com

Shane MosleyAP Photo/Mark J. TerrillShane Mosley dismantled Antonio Margarito last Saturday, but Oscar De La Hoya, Mosley's promoter, chose to take in an MMA match featuring another of his fighters.
Oscar De La Hoya had a tough choice Saturday. He could have used a clone. His company, Golden Boy Promotions, was involved in two events in the Los Angeles area on the same night.

Shane Mosley, a former boxing world champion in three different weight classes and a partner in Golden Boy Promotions, was challenging Antonio Margarito for the WBA welterweight title at the Staples Center. At the same time, Golden Boy Promotions was promoting a mixed martial arts show, featuring heavyweights Fedor Emelianenko and Andrei Arlovski in the main event, at the Honda Center in Anaheim.

The good news for De La Hoya is that both his guys convincingly won their matches. Mosley stopped Margarito on a TKO and Emelianenko KO'd Arlovski. It was a win-win for Golden Boy Promotions. But was it a victory for boxing or MMA?

De La Hoya chose to attend the MMA show in Anaheim because it was a new venture for Golden Boy Promotions, which is partnering with Affliction Entertainment, Donald Trump and M-1.

Is that an indication that De La Hoya sees a brighter future for MMA than he does for boxing? Can the two sports coexist under one banner?

I'm not so sure they can, because they are two completely different sports. And though it might make good business sense for De La Hoya to hedge his bets by throwing his promotional weight behind MMA, it hurts the standing of boxing.

Why? Because the mere involvement and presence of one of boxing's biggest icons of the past 20 years in MMA creates the appearance that boxing is a sinking ship. With regard to any involvement from Golden Boy, MMA will be the winner because the company gives the sport a big shot of credibility. De La Hoya has used that credibility to garner major sponsorships for boxing. He will no doubt be able to do the same thing for MMA, if the fans and fighters who are into the sport accept De La Hoya.

Gary Shaw, a longtime boxing promoter who took a detour to promote MMA with the now-defunct Elite-XC, said there is no way for De La Hoya to bridge the wide divide between boxing and MMA fans and bring both sports under the same banner.

"Oscar is not into MMA," Shaw said. "He can't sit there and tell you anything about the moves or strategies that these guys are using. Oscar is not into MMA, and the people who are in MMA are haters. They will never accept him. Oscar won't be able to overcome that."

Shaw agrees that De La Hoya has the ability to provide MMA with needed credibility, but he also believes the Golden Boy's involvement in MMA will erode his standing in boxing. When De La Hoya's name was announced to the 20,820 fans at the Mosley-Margarito match -- the largest crowd ever to watch an event at the Staples Center -- he was booed.

"How could you not attend a fight that involves a boxer who is a partner in your company in a sold-out arena where they have a statue of you out front?" Shaw asked. "That's a slap in the face to boxing."

De La Hoya believes boxing still is very healthy, and is a robust business opportunity. He pointed to the fact that he was involved, as a promoter and a boxer, in the biggest pay-per-view event of 2008.

"We see MMA as a tremendous business opportunity," De La Hoya said. "Right now there is just one major player in MMA, and we feel like there's nothing wrong with a little competition."

When Golden Boy Promotions first got involved with MMA, the company considered a mixed show featuring both boxing and MMA matches. But the idea was quickly scrapped when fan bases on both sides panned the idea. De La Hoya doesn't want to alienate either fan base.

"I feel like boxing and MMA have a totally different audience right now," De La Hoya said. "But we're hoping to be able to cross some MMA fans to boxing and cross some boxing fans to MMA."

Shaw, who has promoted both sports and enjoys promoting MMA more, said De La Hoya shouldn't count on it. "MMA is a closed community. It's like a cult," Shaw said. "People in boxing are willing to accept people from outside of the sport. People in MMA are haters. They will never accept someone who is not totally into their sport."

Boxing and MMA are as different as horse racing and auto racing. Typically, you won't find too much crossover interest from the hard-core fans of either sport. Perhaps De La Hoya will try to snag more casual sports fans. He says he is willing to be patient and build MMA champions. He is allowing his partners with M-1 Global, a Russian-based MMA promotions company, to do the matchmaking and talent evaluation. But De La Hoya is interested in trying to convert some boxers into MMA stars.

"If we can get some of these boxers when they're still young, we can help make them MMA champions," De La Hoya said. "The boxing and the stand-up is the hardest part. We have to give them a year to learn the grappling. Obviously, to be a good MMA fighter, you've got to be able to fight standing up and on the floor."

[+] EnlargeBob Arum
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty ImagesWhether it's sour grapes or smart business, Bob Arum of Top Rank Promotions believes De La Hoya is making a mistake challenging MMA's existing power structure.
Bob Arum of Top Rank Promotions, for one, isn't even interested in trying to get involved in MMA.

"We're a boxing promotions company, and I really don't enjoy or like MMA," Arum said. "It's ludicrous. It's not skillful. I can't bring myself to promote something I don't like. If it was something I enjoyed, then it might be different.

"Actually, I find it offensive. The guys can't punch. They get on the floor and it looks like two guys humping each other. Some people love it. It's just not to my taste."

Arum said De La Hoya and his partners will face an uphill battle trying to compete with UFC for a niche in the MMA business.

"There's one major company that accommodates the field," Arum said. "That company is very tough to go up against. It requires tremendous resources, time and effort to achieve a niche in a sport that is so dominated by one company. I don't think Golden Boy is doing anything wrong or disloyal to boxing by getting involved. I just think it's foolish and they'll end up losing a lot of money."

De La Hoya said he has been following MMA for about a year and finds it interesting.

"I respect any type of fighter," De La Hoya said. "Being in the ring is a tough gig."

He may find it a tougher gig trying to turn a healthy profit in a sport so dominated by one major player -- and whose fans may perceive him as an interloper.

Tim Smith is the boxing columnist for the New York Daily News.